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Part 3: Destabilising Comic Boundaries

Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) and The Dumb Waiter (1960) or the intermingling of farce and menace

The Birthday Party (1958) et The Dumb Waiter (1960) de Harold Pinter : quand farce et menace s’entrelacent
Aloysia Rousseau


Utilisée pour la première fois par le critique de théâtre Irving Wardle dans un article publié en 1958, l’expression comédie de menace est devenue une formule passe-partout appliquée de manière systématique au théâtre d’Harold Pinter. Wardle a pourtant proposé une définition précise du genre, à la fois thématique et esthétique, reposant sur le motif de l’intrusion malveillante ainsi que sur l’alliance paradoxale du comique et de la menace. Cet article se concentrera sur la définition esthétique, plus précisément sur la simultanéité de la farce et de la menace dans The Birthday Party et du nonsense et de la menace dans The Dumb Waiter. Dans ces deux pièces, le nonsense et la franche comédie occupent une place prépondérante mais la menace n’est jamais bien loin. Goldberg, McCann et Ben sont en effet à la fois des clowns et des tyrans. Le comique de gestes et le langage fantasque qu’ils utilisent sont tout aussi divertissants qu’inquiétants, évoquant des images de persécution et de torture. Cette simultanéité sera toutefois nuancée en termes de production et de réception dans la mesure où le comique peut l’emporter sur la menace et vice versa, laissant au lecteur-spectateur le soin de décider de l’appartenance générique de ces pièces.

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  • 1 ‘Now I am well aware that Mr Pinter’s play received extremely bad notices last Tuesday morning. At (...)
  • 2 Martin Crimp’s theatre can be considered as a prime example of this theatre of unease, as I have tr (...)

1The Birthday Party, written in 1957, received disparaging notices when staged at the Lyric Opera House in London in May 1958. Apart from Harold Hobson’s prophetic praise of Pinter,1 audience members and critics were bewildered and very critical of the play because they did not know how to react to this oddly hybrid literary object, nor whether or not they were expected to laugh and they left the theatre feeling uneasy. Arousing the audience’s unease has by now become a Pinteresque hallmark yet the exact nature of the relationship between laughter and anxiety is still rather blurry, as is made obvious in the heterogeneous stage and film adaptations of his plays. Moreover, if generic instability is something that evidently characterises contemporary theatre,2 such a blurring of clear-cut categories occurring in the 1950s seems much more daring, not to say avant-garde. As such, Harold Pinter, and before him Samuel Beckett, might be considered as having paved the way for contemporary playwrights such as Martin Crimp or Caryl Churchill, playwrights who take this generic instability even further.

  • 3 Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter edited by Mary F. Brewer is an exception to this rule: the articles (...)
  • 4 Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the playwright David Campton did not coin the expression. Campt (...)
  • 5 This is particularly true of his 1980 plays such as One for the Road (1984) or Mountain Language (1 (...)

2The uncertain genre of Pinter’s plays can be identified in the production history of The Dumb Waiter which was first staged at the Hampstead Theatre Club in January 1960 and at the Royal Court Theatre in March, two venues famous for staging plays by promising young playwrights seeking to stimulate political interest. These venues thus attest to the fact that Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter should not be considered as pure farce […] and yet, it often has. In the same way that The Birthday Party has frequently been labelled as one of Pinter’s grimmest and most baffling plays, The Dumb Waiter is often seen as Pinter’s most obvious attempt at slapstick comedy.3 The dichotomy is of course not that clear-cut. That critics, audience members and stage directors in the 21st century still deem necessary to fit plays into antithetical categories might seem surprising. The distinction between a play that arouses laughter and one that distresses appears as obsolete to a contemporary audience. Why then do many theatre goers and makers refuse to acknowledge that there is humour in The Birthday Party while The Dumb Waiter does not merely consist in a one-hour clowning act, thus denying the relevance of the expression ‘comedy of menace’. The idiom has unfortunately become a catch-all phrase systematically applied to Pinter’s plays without much thought being given to it. Yet the expression does have a specific meaning (apart from vaguely alluding to the ‘menacing atmosphere’ in Pinter’s plays) and it raises a number of interesting questions. The expression was first used by critic Irving Wardle in a review of Pinter’s The Birthday Party entitled ‘Comedy of Menace’, published in 1958 in the Magazine Encore4. In this article, Wardle offered a specific thematic and aesthetic definition of the genre. The thematic criterion was based on the motif of the malevolent intrusion, a motif he in fact rejected in a 1960 review of The Caretaker, underlining the fact that menace now came from within. The aesthetic criterion is thus a more reliable one, that is to say the paradoxical combination of comedy and menace, what Wardle refers to as a ‘constant note of menace’ while ‘the quality of the comedy remains undisturbed’ (Wardle 1958, 87). In other words, neither the comic components nor the constant underlying threat should be disregarded. And yet critics have seldom considered Pinter as a comic playwright despite John Russell Taylor’s claim that his ‘comedies of menace are real comedies, in which the humour has to match the horror every step of the way’ (28). Pinter’s plays indeed rely on a constant overlapping of comedy and menace inviting the readers and audience to perceive these antagonistic elements at once, viewing them through what critic Albert Bermel calls the ‘red filter of amusement’ and the ‘blue filter of suffering’ (4). In his 1993 essay, Bermel compares the audience of what he calls ‘comic agony’ to that of an audience watching a 3-D movie with specific 3-D glasses: ‘To apprehend the “depth” of the drama, a spectator of comic agony needs to look through the “red” filter of amusement and at the same time through the “blue” filter of suffering. And not only the “depth” of the dramatic images is at stake here, but also their clarity. Viewing through only the “blue” or “red” filter results in blurred vision’ (4–5). I will wonder whether Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter can be viewed through those two filters of amusement and suffering simultaneously by throwing light upon two specific moments in these plays in which farce and menace intermingle, that is to say Stanley’s cross-examination in the second act of The Birthday Party and the opening pantomime in The Dumb Waiter. I will then focus on stage and film adaptations of the plays and wonder whether this simultaneousness is not in fact an unattainable ideal. This article should thus be considered as a case study focusing on Pinter’s earlier productions and more precisely on the two plays mentioned above. I will not derive general principles concerning Pinter’s plays that have evidently evolved over time, the playwright sometimes obliterating the comic component.5 I will however wonder what this combination of laughter and unease that characterises Pinter’s earlier plays entails in terms of audience response.

Nonsense in The Birthday Party

3Stanley lives a tranquil life in Petey and Meg’s seaside boarding house when two seemingly sympathetic men called Goldberg and McCann arrive at the boarding house and start pestering Stanley. Goldberg and McCann’s lengthy questioning of Stanley in the second act of The Birthday Party starts as typical police interrogation, the two men enquiring as to Stanley’s last whereabouts: ‘Webber, what were you doing yesterday? […] And the day before. What did you do the day before that?’ (57). Yet the realistic dialogue soon transforms into comic logorrhea laden with nonsensical elements. Goldberg in fact revels in playing with language, sometimes deriving mere aesthetic pleasure from the sound of words as can be seen in his assertion that Stanley treats Lulu like a leper: ‘Why do you treat that young lady like a leper? She’s not the leper, Webber!’ (57–58). With the alliteration on ‘l’ and the leper/Webber assonance, the sentence almost appears as a tongue twister. Language starts losing its referential function and takes on a life of its own which is in fact the very definition of nonsense, as underlined by Jean-Jacques Lecercle in Le Dictionnaire et le cri:

Aussi le Nonsense pratique-t-il la logorrhée, la précision inutile, toutes les formes de redondance, et principalement la répétition. Le langage prend une vie indépendante de celui qui est censé le parler : le discours se déroule tout seul, engendré par des structures phoniques ou rhétoriques qui lui sont intérieures, et parfois seule une intervention extérieure peut l’arrêter. (23)

4Goldberg and McCann’s questions indeed seem to be subject to their own phonic and rhetorical laws as is made obvious in their long list of idiomatic expressions used to denounce Stanley’s parasitic habits: ‘Why are you wasting everybody’s time, Webber?’, ‘Why are you getting in everybody’s way?’, ‘Why are you getting on everybody’s wick?’, ‘Why are you driving the old lady off her conk?’, ‘Why do you behave so badly, Webber?’ (57). The anaphoric and dizzying succession of idioms appears as a series of rhetorical questions enabling the two men to display their verbal prowess rather than questions actually directed at Stanley. Stanley’s subverted cross-examination (the defendant is in fact not expected to answer) thus appears as an example of nonsense comedy and yet a very real threat can be felt. Nonsense is not detached from reality here but the reality to which it alludes remains blurry. It ‘reflects’ reality rather than ‘represent’ it, which is in fact characteristic of nonsense, according to Jean-Jacques Lecercle. Pinter is indeed never explicitly delivering a political message but discreetly suggesting various possible interpretations. This is what distinguishes Pinter’s earlier plays from his most recent plays often perceived as more political. In fact, according to the playwright himself, his first plays are not less political but less explicitly so:

My earlier plays are much more political than they seem on the face of it […]. When you look at them, they’re much closer to an extremely critical look at authoritarian postures—state power, family power, religious power, power used to undermine, if not destroy, the individual, or the questioning voice, or the voice which simply went away from the mainstream and refused to become part of an easily recognisable set of standards and social values] (quoted in Smith 85).

5Authoritarian postures are indeed condemned in The Birthday Party, Pinter still strongly bearing in mind not only the intrusions of the Gestapo into people’s homes during World War II but also the threat represented by the fascist gangs and political parties such as the British Union of Fascists who were very active in London’s East End where Pinter grew up. If Pinter is first and foremost interested in the destruction of the individual, one might wonder if arousing laughter is not a means to remind the audience of its own loss of individuality. Keeping in mind Bergson’s definition of laughter as necessarily collective, we can say that our individuality is indeed suppressed when we laugh with other members of the audience at Goldberg and McCann’s nonsense comedy. Even more disquieting is our siding with these two threatening figures by laughing with them at Stanley. If we come back to Pinter’s assertion that his plays condemn the destruction of ‘the voice which simply went away from the mainstream’, then we could say that the audience is part of that mainstream—isn’t comedy after all mainstream theatre par excellence?—and that this mainstream audience contributes to the annihilation of Stanley’s individuality. Yet this is where the intermingling of comedy and menace comes in. Our laughter does not express strict adherence to Goldberg and McCann’s humour. By perceiving them as both clowns and oppressors, the audience feels both pleasure and unease. In other words, we derive aesthetic and almost childish pleasure from the rhythm and sounds of their speech, all the while being aware of the threat these two intruders represent. McCann’s suggestion that they ‘stick a needle in [Stanley’s] eye’ (62) epitomises this ambiguity. We identify the childish idiom (‘Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye’) but we also acknowledge the eminently cruel nature of what can be seen as a very real means of torture used to obtain a confession from a captive. Torture and innocuous children’s play thus become intermingled, once again in a typical nonsensical manner. Yet Stanley and Goldberg’s discourse cannot be immediately identified as nonsense, hence the audience losing its bearings. Nonsense is a device associated with Victorian literature, not with 20th century drama. As such, our horizon of expectations is disrupted, as underlined by Varun Begley in his 2005 monograph: ‘Comedy […] does not mesh comfortably with the manifest cruelty of these exchanges. With a toehold in a realist world, the interrogations refuse the consolation of a stable frame of reference—not only in relation to questions of fact, but also at the level of the generic sensibility informing the audience’ (168–69). I would argue that the interrogation scene not only creates generic instability, as suggested by Begley, but also ethic instability. Not only do we not know whether what we are witnessing is a harmless comic act or psychological torture at its peak, but we in fact enjoy Goldberg and McCann’s comic logorrhea all the while acknowledging Stanley’s victimisation. The audience’s ethos is thus unsettled.

Farce in The Dumb Waiter

6The same unsettling strategy is at work in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter from the very beginning of the play, despite a seemingly purely farcical first scene. The opening pantomime indeed relies on physical comedy with the two characters—two hitmen waiting for their next assignment in a basement—immediately appearing as clowns. Ben and Gus are indeed reminiscent of previous famous comedy duos such as Laurel and Hardy, duos who owe their existence to the circus tradition of the Auguste and the Whiteface clown. Ben is easily identifiable as the Whiteface clown, that is to say the intelligent one who, because of his wit, dominates his companion while Gus, as his name suggests, is the typical clumsy and naive Auguste. The play opens with a clowning act relying on exaggerated physical actions:

BEN is lying on a bed, left, reading a paper. GUS is sitting on a bed, right, tying his shoelaces, with difficulty. Both are dressed in shirts, trousers and braces.
GUS ties his laces, rises, yawns and begins to walk slowly to the door, left. He stops, looks down, and shakes his foot.
BEN lowers his paper and watches him. GUS kneels and unties his shoe-lace and slowly takes off the shoe. He looks inside it and brings out a flattened matchbox. He shakes it and examines it. Their eyes meet. BEN rattles his paper and reads. GUS puts the matchbox in his pocket and bends down to put his shoe. He ties his lace, with difficulty. BEN lowers his paper and watches him. GUS walks to the door, left, stops, and shakes the other foot. He kneels, unties his shoe-lace, and slowly takes off the shoe. He looks inside it and brings out a flattened cigarette packet. He shakes it and examines it. Their eyes meet. BEN rattles his paper and reads. GUS puts the packet in his pocket, bends down, puts on his shoe and ties the lace.
He wanders off, left.
BEN slams the paper down on the bed and glares after him. He picks up the paper and lies on his back, reading.

  • 6 ‘The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that (...)
  • 7 My translation of the French text which reads as follows: ‘Ce spectacle […] annonce dès le départ l (...)
  • 8 My translation. ‘Cette scène sans paroles se révèle donc […] comme une sorte de synecdoque gestuell (...)

7Gus appears as the Auguste in this opening scene since his first action consists in tying his shoelaces ‘with difficulty’. The childlike nature of Gus is immediately highlighted in his being unable to perform such a simple task as tying one’s shoelaces. Emblematic clowning props are moreover used in this scene, such as the foolishly big shoes. Gus is indeed able to hide a matchbox in one shoe and a packet of cigarettes in the other. More importantly, Gus’s slow and methodical gestures are those of a mime artist drawing attention to his action before performing it. Gus indeed looks at his foot then shakes it, orienting the audience’s gaze towards his shoe. The two men’s gestures are moreover constantly repeated twice giving the impression of a mechanical routine which is, according to Bergson, one of the main components of comedy.6 There are thus elements obviously belonging to low comedy and buffoonery in this scene but this does not amount to saying that we are dealing with pure farce. I indeed disagree with Elin Diamond’s interpretation of this scene as a prelude to the play’s comic nature. I would argue that this pantomime establishes the play’s eminently ambiguous nature in between farce and menace, arousing the audience’s unease. The inequitable relationship between Gus and Ben is indeed pointed at through the glances exchanged between the two characters or to be more specific through Ben’s surveillance of Gus. Even though we are told twice that ‘their eyes meet’, Ben is in fact the one ‘watching’ Gus finally ‘glaring after him’ at the end of the excerpt. Even though this can be interpreted as Ben’s mere annoyance at his stooge, Ben’s gaze is also an obvious sign of his domination. Contrary to Diamond’s analysis of this scene as exclusively comic, I would therefore agree with Ann Lecercle’s interpretation of the scene as a synecdoche of the comedy of menace at work throughout the play: ‘From the beginning of the play, this performance […] foreshadows the ensuing events that will reach a climax in the denouement’.7 She then adds: ‘This dumb show […] is thus a sort of gestural synecdoche of the whole text. It is by no means the absurd padding some have seen in it’.8 In terms of rhetoric, not only can this scene be interpreted as synecdoche but it can also be seen as prolepsis since the end of the play is already contained in embryo in this introductory pantomime. As underlined by Ann Lecercle, the glances exchanged between the two men indeed foreshadow the murderous final stare mentioned in the last stage direction of the play. It is finally a highly oxymoronic scene since Gus and Ben’s Laurel and Hardy-like performance points to the slapstick nature of the scene while Ben’s authoritarian posture instills a discreet yet disquieting atmosphere. This opening dumb show is thus a perfect example of the postmodern simultaneousness of farce and menace since, as we are reminded by Linda Hutcheon, ‘the postmodern partakes of a logic of “both/and”, not one of “either/or”’ (49). Hutcheon in fact refuses the traditional dichotomy between levity and seriousness: ‘To include irony and play is never necessarily to exclude seriousness and purpose in postmodernist art’ (27). In other words, our identifying the threat represented by Ben does not preclude our enjoyment of the pantomime.

8Following my analysis of these two excerpts, I would like to suggest that Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter may be perceived as what Roland Barthes calls an ideal text, a text that has several entrances, none of which prevails over the other: ‘In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any of them being able to surpass the rest; […] the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language’ (5). Yet the fact that Barthes chooses to describe such texts as ‘ideal’ should arouse doubts as to the feasibility of staging these texts. More generally, does an ideal text in fact exist or is Barthes simply reminding us what a perfect text should be, not what it is? It indeed seems to be the case since Barthes reminds his reader that only partially or moderately plural texts can be subjected to scrutiny. I would also like to come back to Bermel’s definition of comic agony quoted earlier on and throw light on the use of the verb ‘to need’: ‘To apprehend the “depth” of the drama, a spectator of comic agony needs to look through the “red” filter of amusement and at the same time through the “blue” filter of suffering’ (4). The fact that Bermel uses the verb ‘to need’ in the same way that Barthes uses the adjective ‘ideal’ once again leads us to wonder whether the simultaneousness of farce and menace is not a goal to be reached more than it is a fact. In other words, isn’t there a risk of this simultaneousness being lost in the transition from page to stage? Borrowing Bermel’s metaphor of the 3-D glasses, we could say that stage directors and filmmakers have often perceived Pinter’s plays through only one filter instead of viewing his plays through the filter of amusement and that of suffering. This tendency to oversimplify is in fact denounced by Bermel himself: ‘Once the comic agony has been discerned in a play, a director and actors may be tempted to tip it to one side or the other, but if they do they oversimplify and undercut its effect’ (6). This temptation to tip the play to one side or the other is in fact a natural reaction having to do with interpretation: a playwright can control many aspects of his play thanks to the stage directions but one thing he cannot control is how his play is going to be interpreted and by whom. There are indeed various interpreters of a play: the director staging it but also the actors performing it as well as the readers, audience and critics reviewing the play. These diverse interpreters give way to diverse layers of interpretation, sometimes equivocal (or plural, to borrow Barthes’ terminology), sometimes unequivocal. According to critic Mathew Winston whose research focuses on dark humour, the latter (the unambiguous interpretation) is much more frequent and plausible: ‘Many critics have insisted that the distinctive effect of black humor […] is that the reader must feel the humor and the horror simultaneously, but I find this formulation of our response inaccurate. It is indeed necessary that both potentials be present in the text and exert approximately equal claims, but it is unlikely that we respond to both at once’ (256). In other words, textual simultaneousness does not entail aesthetic simultaneousness. This accounts for a number of stage directors and filmmakers being unable to respond to both potentials at once when dealing with Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter. Productions and film adaptations of these two plays have indeed often tilted to one side or the other. There is a tendency to transform these highly ambiguous plays into either low comedy or taut psychological thrillers as I will now try to demonstrate. I will throw light on the means used by stage directors and filmmakers in order to elicit an unambiguous (rather than plural) interpretation from the audience and viewers.

Suppressing ambiguity

  • 9 I have indeed chosen to focus on The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter in this article but other c (...)
  • 10 The Trafalgar Studio poster can be seen on the following website: http://www.jasonisaacsphotoalbums (...)
  • 11 Pictures of the show are available on the Facebook page of O’Flanagan’s company ‘Théâtre en anglais (...)

9Stage directors have often tended to overestimate the comic aspect of Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, probably guided, among other reasons, by financial motives. It is indeed easier and much more profitable to entertain members of an audience than to have them leave the theatre confused. In other words laughter is the safest and most efficient means, if not to obtain the critics’ approval, at least to play to a full house. This cohesion is strongly criticised by playwright Howard Barker according to whom theatre should be a means to stimulate individual reflection rather than communal entertainment: ‘The Public, as an invention, becomes the enemy of the artist, a solid bloc of immovable entertainment-seekers whose numbers and subsequent economic power forbid intelligence’ (Barker 17). Barker’s opinion is obviously not shared by a great number of stage directors who indeed consider audience members as ‘entertainment-seekers’ and whose aim it is to satisfy them. This might be an explanation for the prevailing comic productions of Pinter’s early plays,9 as will be exemplified in the selection of British and French productions studied here. I will first throw light on two productions of The Dumb Waiter, that is to say Harry Burton’s production at The Trafalgar Studio in London in 2007 and Lucille O’Flanagan’s The Dumb Waiter at the Monfort Théâtre in Paris in 2009. The clearly comedy oriented choices on behalf of the stage directors can be identified in the play’s posters which heavily rely on stereotype. Posters indeed convey an essential message since they influence the audience’s perception before their even seeing the play. Members of the audience thus enter the theatre with a preconceived idea of what they are about to attend, in this case a parody of gangster movies. The actors playing Ben and Gus are posing as archetypal gangsters with their threatening gaze and gun directed towards the onlooker. Parody is in fact highlighted in the Trafalgar Studio poster since the gun is replaced by a hand, suggesting a harmless threat: what the absence of gun conveys is that this is all make-believe.10 It is only a game in which the audience is invited to participate. The paratext moreover leaves little room for doubt as to the comic interpretation of the stage directors. Despite O’Flanagan’s reminder that The Dumb Waiter is both dark and hilarious (‘une comédie sombre et hilarante’), the mention ‘spectacle en anglais tout public’ indicates that the performance is meant to appeal to a broad audience. The characters’ costumes confirm O’Flanagan’s wish to address adults and children alike since Ben and Gus have cast aside their gangster attire and are clearly dressed as clowns11. The hitmen’s ridiculous attire (pink and satiny bow-tie, frilly shirtfront, dinner jacket and turquoise socks) obviously erase any note of menace which might emanate from the two gunmen. Lucille O’Flanagan is therefore offering a very personal interpretation of Pinter’s succinct stage direction: ‘Both are dressed in shirts, trousers and braces’ (129). In Harry Burton’s production, it is not so much Gus’s attire that makes him a clown as the actor chosen to play the part. The cast of actors can indeed be another indication of the play’s genre as is the case here with Burton’s choice of famous stand-up comedian Lee Evans to play Gus. Lee Evans is known for his emphatic physical clowning which he did not depart from in his impersonation of Gus as underlined by critic Rhoda Koenig in The Independent: ‘Evans makes an exceptionally gormless gunman, but his overstated manner—he barks his lines from the beginning and rushes a few—loses much of the character’s vulnerability’. Evans’ performance as Clov in a 2004 production of Beckett’s Endgame had however unanimously been praised by the critics, showing that in Burton’s production, it is not so much the actor who fails to understand the simultaneity of farce and menace as the director. In the 2004 production of Endgame, Matthew Warchus encourages Evans to tinge his slapstick performance with a touch of vulnerability, something that disappears from Evan’s histrionic display in The Dumb Waiter. Playing for laughs thus seems to be a recurring strategy on behalf of directors staging The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party as is exemplified in Lindsay Posner’s 2005 production of The Birthday Party in which Eileen Atkins’s performance as Meg was obviously meant to entertain the audience. One example would be Meg’s subtle flirting with Stanley in Pinter’s text which here becomes overt sexual attraction, never failing to arouse the audience’s laughter. As underlined by critic Kate Bassett in The Independent, ‘Atkins plays her breakfast banalities for laughs, but she fractionally overdoes it, making this 1958 play look a bit caricatured and creaky’. Farce is thus heightened while the threat represented by the two intruders comes almost to nil, Henry Goodman—as Goldberg—playing to the gallery as a sort of mock mafioso.

10My aim here is not to stress an utter impossibility to transpose the simultaneity of farce and menace from page to stage. My analysis is limited to my knowledge of the critics and my experience as audience member. Even though I have to admit that I am still to attend a performance of either The Birthday Party or The Dumb Waiter in which the intermingling of comedy and menace is truly done justice, this does not amount to saying that such productions do not exist. Their rarity is however indicative of a difficulty to transpose Pinter’s extremely subtle use of dark humour to the stage.

11While stage directors have often laid emphasis on the comic dimension of Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, the reverse can be said concerning filmmakers whose opposite tendency consists in ‘playing up the doom and menace’, as underlined by critic Richard Dutton: ‘I have never yet seen a film or television of one of Pinter’s stage-plays […] which does justice to the comic dimension; they invariably seem to play up the doom and menace […] at the expense of the ludicrous’ (11). Such is the case with William Friedkin’s 1968 adaptation of The Birthday Party and Robert Altman’s 1987 adaptation of The Dumb Waiter and The Room entitled Basements. According to Dutton, the dark mood which prevails in film adaptations of Pinter’s plays is ‘partly a result of excessive use of close-ups rather than the broader picture which is always before us in the theatre’ (11). The characters’ distress is in fact not only underlined visually in Friedkin’s adaptation but also acoustically. The use of highly disquieting sounds indeed emphasise the play’s menace. The film in fact opens with mysterious and very unpleasant screeching sounds which will only later on be given an explanation as McCann is seen methodically tearing up his newspaper. Other sounds will then be amplified in the film such as the engine of Goldberg and McCann’s car announcing their arrival and the threat they represent. But it is probably during the game of blind man’s buff that this disquieting use of sounds reaches a peak. As all characters are plunged into darkness, a drum is hit louder and louder. Lulu’s piercing screams are then heard, arousing the audience’s dread and reinforcing the nightmarish atmosphere. Throughout the film, a constant note of menace is maintained while comedy is kept at bay, as is made obvious in what can be perceived as a game of musical chairs in the second act of the play:

MCCANN. He won’t sit down.
GOLDBERG Well, ask him.
MCCANN. I’ve asked him.
GOLDBERG. Ask him again.
MCCANN (to STANLEY). Sit down.
MCCANN. You’d be more comfortable.
STANLEY So would you.
MCCANN. All right. If you will I will.
STANLEY. You first.
MCCANN slowly sits at the table, left.
STANLEY. Right. Now you’ve both had a rest you can get out!
MCCANN (rising). That’s a dirty trick! I’ll kick the shite out of him! (56-57)

12In Pinter’s text, the intermingling of farce and menace reaches a peak in this excerpt. Goldberg and McCann try to impose their authority on Stanley by having him sit down, thus acting as tyrannical figures yet this game of musical chairs also adds an entertaining aspect to the scene. Sitting down is, as we are reminded by Bergson, characteristic of comedy: ‘The hero in a tragedy does not eat or drink or warm himself. He does not even sit down any more than can be helped. To sit down in the middle of a fine speech would imply that you remembered you had a body’ (52). Not only do the characters sit down here but they in fact sit and rise, this up and down movement giving the impression that we have three entertainers offering a music hall performance. This is classic slapstick comedy. Yet Friedkin erases any possible allusion to a clowning act and offers a harrowing rendering of the scene. Tension indeed reaches its climax with the actors’ slow diction and feeble voice underlining the characters’ exhaustion. What might have been perceived as a comic relief scene becomes a nerve-racking confrontation. One could argue that Friedkin’s gloomy rendering of The Birthday Party does not attest to a difference between stage adaptations and film adaptations but simply highlights the contrast between The Dumb Waiter as comedy and The Birthday Party as psychological thriller. Yet Posner’s comic production referred to earlier on as well as Robert Altman’s film Basements invalidate this argument.12 Altman indeed offers a version of The Dumb Waiter completely devoid of humour. It seems that the film-maker did perceive the play as an ‘ideal text’, having several entrances, but his hesitating between comedy and menace resulted in misleading publicity. The covers of the VHS tapes (the film not being available on DVD) indeed suggest a Manichean opposition between The Dumb Waiter as farce and The Room as thriller (Basements being a double bill), one white and the other black, one showing two clumsy cartoon-like waiters and the other three sinister-looking characters. Yet Altman’s The Dumb Waiter is anything but farcical. The opening credits immediately immerse the viewer in an eerie atmosphere as Ben and Gus—John Travolta and Tom Conti—are seen driving through a secluded wintry forest to reach the basement where the play occurs while a disquieting soundtrack is playing. The camera then zooms in on an old light bulb burning out before zooming out on a derelict basement that is plunged into darkness and is everything but enticing. The viewers will have to wait for five long minutes for the first words to be uttered, the two actors adopting the same slow, monotonous tone from beginning to end. The opening pantomime disappears in this 1987 adaptation as does any other hint of comedy.


13What results from my analysis of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party is the profound subjectivity of generic categories. Whether or not a play should be deemed comic does not depend on the playwright’s intention but on the interpreters’ perception of the play, be it, once again, the stage director, actors, readers or members of the audience. Eugène Ionesco expressed his frustration at this generic instability in a 1956 essay entitled ‘Mes critiques et moi’ in which he deplored the misinterpretation of his plays, starting with The Bald Soprano:

  • 13 My translation of the French text which reads as follows:

The play made people laugh a lot. I was astonished since I thought I had written the ‘Tragedy of Language’!
So as to avoid any further confusion, I wrote a second play in which you could see a horrible, cruel and sadistic professor kill his poor pupils one after the other. The audience thought it was downright cheerful.
I then thought I had understood my mistake which was that I was an unintentionally comic playwright so I wrote farces: that, among others, of two senile almost centenarian characters. They throw a party to which many people are invited who do not attend and yet for whom numerous useless chairs are piled up. […] The audience thought the whole thing particularly macabre.
I had, once again, been mistaken.13

14Although Ionesco is partly tongue in cheek here, there is some truth in this statement, more particularly in the playwright’s perception of genre as being determined by the audience. The degree of comedy and menace in Pinter’s drama is for the audience to assess as the playwright never imposes meaning on his plays. As Pinter himself underlines in his 2005 Nobel lecture, ‘there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other’. Yet Pinter’s refusal to ascribe meaning to his plays does not guarantee the same decision from stage directors or film makers hence the simultaneousness of farce and menace often being lost on stage. However, bearing in mind this ideal of a plural text is what stimulates directors and filmmakers to keep on trying to reach such ideal and it is also what enables the audience to have access to highly diverse productions, acknowledging the fact that there is no such thing as an unequivocal interpretation of Pinter’s plays. In the same way that Pinter claims that there is no single truth in drama, there is no single approach to his plays. That is why my previous analysis of Pinter’s plays as postmodern should be qualified. Deeming these plays postmodern is still fitting them into a specific category, in other words doing exactly what Pinter is asking us not to do. Perhaps the answer lies in Basil Chiasson’s suggestion of a visceral rather than intellectual approach to Pinter’s plays. In his essay entitled ‘(Re)thinking Harold Pinter’s Comedy of Menace’, Chiasson suggests that we dismiss the age-old genres that are comedy and tragedy as well as our traditional response to them when trying to describe Pinter’s plays: ‘all these plays speak a predominantly visceral language that impacts the audience’s emotions, evoking laughter and anxiety and all their experiential derivatives in such a way as to edge spectators beyond cliché and familiar experience’ (48). Pinter thus paved the way for 21st century playwrights who further this deconstruction of comedy, eliciting highly ambiguous responses in between laughter and anxiety.

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Barker, Howard, Arguments for a Theatre, London: John Calder, 1989.

Barthes, Roland, S/Z (1970), trans. Richard Miller, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Basset, Kate, ‘There’s Terror. And there’s Pinter,’ The Independent 1 May 2005, last accessed at on June 4, 2016.

Begley, Varun, Harold Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism, Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.

Bergson, Henri, Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1901), trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Bermel, Albert, Comic Agony: Mixed Impressions in the Modern Theatre, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP, 1996.

Chiasson, Basil, ‘(Re)thinking Harold Pinter’s Comedy of Menace’, Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, ed. Mary F. Brewer, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2009.

Diamond, Elin, Pinter’s Comic Play, London: Associated UP, 1985.

Dutton, Richard, Modern Tragicomedy and the British Tradition: Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, Albee and Storey, Norman and London: U of Oklahoma P, 1986.

Hobson, Harold, ‘The Screw Turns Again’, The Sunday Times 28 April 1958, last accessed at, on June 4, 2016.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 1988.

Ionesco, Eugène, Notes et contre-notes, Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Koenig, Rhoda, ‘First Night: The Dumb Waiter, Trafalgar Studios, London. Hitmen forget to pack menace’, The Independent, 9 February 2007, last accessed at on June 4, 2016.

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1 ‘Now I am well aware that Mr Pinter’s play received extremely bad notices last Tuesday morning. At the moment I write these it is uncertain even whether the play will still be in the bill by the time they appear, though it is probable it will soon be seen elsewhere. Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London’ (Hobson).

2 Martin Crimp’s theatre can be considered as a prime example of this theatre of unease, as I have tried to demonstrate in my article ‘‘The Brighter and More Cheerful It Is, the More It Hurts”: Martin Crimp’s Darkly Disturbing Comedies’, Études britanniques contemporaines 44 (2013)

3 Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter edited by Mary F. Brewer is an exception to this rule: the articles collected here offer various approaches to the play and highlight its position in between high and low culture.

4 Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the playwright David Campton did not coin the expression. Campton chose the expression as a subtitle for his 1957 play The Lunatic View in 1960, when his play was first published, that is to say two years after Wardle’s use of the expression.

5 This is particularly true of his 1980 plays such as One for the Road (1984) or Mountain Language (1988) which are more overtly political and clearly do away with comedy.

6 ‘The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine’ (29).

7 My translation of the French text which reads as follows: ‘Ce spectacle […] annonce dès le départ la suite des événements qui trouveront leur point culminant dans le dénouement de la pièce’ (236).

8 My translation. ‘Cette scène sans paroles se révèle donc […] comme une sorte de synecdoque gestuelle du texte tout entier. Elle n’est nullement le remplissage "absurde" que l’on a pu y voir’ (237).

9 I have indeed chosen to focus on The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter in this article but other comedies of menace such as The Room (1957) or A Slight Ache (1958) have been interpreted in such a univocal manner.

10 The Trafalgar Studio poster can be seen on the following website: The Monfort théâtre poster is unfortunately not available anymore on the internet.

11 Pictures of the show are available on the Facebook page of O’Flanagan’s company ‘Théâtre en anglais’:

12 Altman’s film can be viewed on the following web page: <>

13 My translation of the French text which reads as follows:

‘La pièce fit beaucoup rire les gens. J’en fus tout étonné, moi, qui avais cru écrire la ‘Tragédie du langage !’

Pour empêcher toute confusion possible, je fis une seconde pièce dans laquelle on voyait comment un professeur, atroce, sadique, s’y prenait pour tuer une à une, toutes ses malheureuses élèves. Le public trouva que cela était franchement gai.

Pensant alors comprendre mon erreur et que j’étais un auteur inconsciemment comique j’écrivis des farces : celle, entre autres, de deux personnes presque centenaires, drôlement gâteuses, qui organisent une soirée à laquelle des quantités de gens sont invités, qui ne viennent pas, pour lesquels on entasse une énorme quantité de chaises inutiles. […] Les spectateurs trouvèrent que la chose était particulièrement macabre.

Je m’étais donc, une fois encore, trompé’ (129–30)

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Référence électronique

Aloysia Rousseau, « Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) and The Dumb Waiter (1960) or the intermingling of farce and menace »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 30 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Aloysia Rousseau

Aloysia Rousseau is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Paris-Sorbonne where she teaches British and American Literature. She is the author of several articles on the plays of contemporary playwrights such as Martin Crimp, Denis Kelly, Simon Stephens or Tim Crouch and she has published a book on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (Paris: Atlande, 2011). Her PhD, completed in 2010, aimed at identifying a revival of the comedy of menace in contemporary British theatre and her current research focuses on the various forms of comedy and laughter in 20th and 21st century British theatre as well as on the subversion of popular genres.

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